A few people have asked about the setup I used for my Halloween shoot, and the editing that went into the photos. So here’s the background, the tech, and more!


The first question is simply “why”. Easy enough; I’m new in town and figured this would be a fun way to get to know some people, get my name as a photographer out there, and with any luck, make a little money. It’s hard to make any real money selling $4 facebook-size images, and I know that’s the only thing most people will buy, but that’s OK. It’s fun, it’s a good experience, and again, it gets my name and face out there.

I did something similar two years ago when I lived in Pasadena, except that I set up a studio on my front lawn and photographed (with parental permission of course) the kids that came trick-or-treating. However now in Ashland, where I live, no one comes knocking, so I figured I’d better bring the studio to them! Hence this idea was born.


I wanted this to look as much like a studio shoot as possible, but still be completely portable. I had no idea if I’d be walking the streets all night or staying in one place (it turns out I was in the same plaza all night; absolute party central), but even then, without permission from the city, I wouldn’t be able to set up a permanent backdrop, lights on stands, etc. So I had to be 100% portable.

Let’s start with the backdrop. I wanted a pure black background, and I figured there were two ways to do this. Either get a black background, or shoot at high speed sync with a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second or so, which would eliminate most background clutter. However I knew there would be a few problems with this. For one, any really bright light (car headlight, shop window, etc.) would still show through. For another, shooting high speed sync takes longer to recycle the flash (you’re asking for max power and flickering at an extremely high frequency instead of a single pop; google “high speed flash sync” for more on how that works) and chews through batteries. The batteries I wasn’t so worried about, but fast recycle time I knew would be key. I could have doubled-up the flash heads to split the load, but a) that’d get even heavier and more cumbersome (remember I needed to carry this thing), and b) then I wouldn’t be able to use the modifier that I wanted to. So, I really needed a black backdrop.

I was fortunately in New York last week so was able to stop by the king of all camera stores; B&H. I wanted a pop-up background that my assistant could easily collapse to carry around and expand to use, and be light-weight enough to hold up all night. I ended up with a Botero #035 Collapsible Background (5x7’). It’s easy to collapse (with a little practice), light weight, and a good solid black. It’s not quite the black-hole, all-light-sucking black that I would have liked, but they didn’t have anything like that.

Equipment—Camera & Light

I chose to use my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III for this, even though it’s heavier, because the focusing system is better than on the 5D Mk II—and I knew it’d be a challenge to focus in low light (which it was, and I have changes to make for that). I used the ol’ standby 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 lens, and that’s it for the camera.

Lighting was of course the big question; how do you light people so it looks like studio lighting, but with a single on-camera flash? I’ve used mini soft-boxes, big reflectors, the Gary Fong Lightsphere, and more, and while they’re all OK (and way better than un-modified on-camera light), none of them are great. So I decided to try something new; I’ve been eyeing those funky ring-light modifiers that you slap on a regular strobe for a while now. The two products that have the market share seem to be ExpoImaging Ray Flash and the orbis by enlight photo. I liked the idea of the Ray Flash more because it looked simpler to set up; put the flash on the hot shoe, slap on the Ray Flash, and you’re in business. However there are at least ten (yes, ten) different models to choose from, depending on the the camera body (determining the height of the modifier) and lens (width of the modifier) that you’re going to use. This did not appeal—at all. The orbis, on the other hand, doesn’t attach to the camera, so you either hand-hold it (so, which hand do I steady the camera and zoom with, exactly?) or mount it onto this ridiculous looking bracket. Because these were the two choices, I never bought either, even though I’ve visited their websites and toyed with the idea several times over the last year or so.

Since I was at PhotoPlus Expo in NY last week, one of my plans was to see either of these things in action, and make a decision. I never did check out the Ray Flash (again… being locked into a single body/lens combo seems ridiculous), but fortunately James Madelin, the inventor of the orbis, was there showing off his creation. He spent quite a bit of time with me showing off the modifier (he had a tethered shooting rig and a model at the show), and showing different ways to use it. Truth be told, I like the look you get holding the orbis above the lens better than sticking the lens through it, but that requires hand-holding it. For my Halloween needs, I had to get it all together into a single, portable contraption. I loved the results, and decided to make the purchase—even with the silly looking bracket to hold it all together.

Once assembled, here’s what it looked like. I posted this photo on Instagram (@travel_junkie, same as twitter, if you’re not already following!) the day before Halloween:

orbis ring flash modifier on a Canon 1Ds Mk III, 24-70 ƒ/2.8 lens, 580EX II Speedlite and ST-E2 trigger

As you can see, the assembly is a bit ridiculous. BUT… it works. That blue cold shoe under the strobe is another James Madelin creation; the frio (cold shoe… cold… frio… get it?) but for this use it wasn’t stable enough and I swapped it out for a generic, blocky but solid cold shoe. I also wrapped little padding around the vertical bracket so it’d be more comfortable to hold, although I usually just wedged my hand under the lens and held the camera as you normally would while shooting.

Also, see the wireless trigger on the top of the camera? That failed about half-way through the night (dead lithium battery probably), so I swapped it out for a cable (the Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord). Much more reliable, and I should have just done that in the first place.

Lesson: Always carry backup! I would have been dead in the water without that cable, since stores were closed (assuming it even was the battery). I had a backup camera body, lens, strobe and more in a backpack that I locked and strapped to my assistant.

Finally I attached my Black¤Rapid RS-5 strap to the bottom of the camera (that bracket has a tripod bolt under it, as you can see in the lower-right photo) and slung that eight lb. rig (yep, I just weighed it) over my shoulder.

The rest of the story…

…will have to wait. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the shoot itself, the photo edit, sharing/selling the photos, and finally what I’ll do differently next time. Hmm, this might take two more posts!

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